CXO

Why coding schools may be a solution to the tech talent shortage

When approached correctly, coding schools might be the answer to staffing entry-level positions on your development team. We talk to a cofounder of one coding school to learn more.

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The Iron Yard location in Charleston, SC

An intriguing and relatively new option for filling the ranks with technical talent is the emergence of coding schools, where people from all walks of life are given an intensive series of classes, generally over the course of several weeks to six months, intended to provide a solid foundation of software development skills. I recently spoke with Eric Dodds, the CMO and a founder of The Iron Yard, a rapidly growing coding school that primarily serves the Southeastern US, about how coding schools can provide talent in emerging technologies.

Success starts with having realistic expectations

It's critical for coding school students and those that ultimately hire graduates to have realistic expectations about what the schools provide. Key for employers is realizing that graduates of most coding schools are entry-level employees, many of whom have never worked in IT. Even with an intensive program, graduates are junior programmers, and the skills they've acquired don't equate to years of industry experience. "Students are 'green,' and that's OK," notes Dodds. "They haven't developed the bad habits that a long-time developer may have acquired, and can readily learn your company's way of doing things."

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Eric Dodds
The Iron Yard establishes an employer advisory board that recruits local and regional employers. "One of our board members emphasized the important of Agile and Scrum methodologies, so we've started including them in our curriculum," said Dodds. The Iron Yard also partners with employers to create apprentice and sponsorship programs that pair students with internship opportunities, providing skills and a low-risk way for graduates to gain experience and for employers to augment their staff. Other major coding schools, like General Assembly, The Flatiron School, and Coding Dojo, provide similar programs on a national scale, and most major cities where there is high demand for IT skills have a school or two popping up.

One potential problem for large employers is that most code schools, The Iron Yard included, target newer, open source development tools. If your midsize company is dying for JavaScript or Ruby on Rails resources, the local code school could provide several qualified graduates; if your company needs .NET or Java developers or junior ERP configurators, most code schools don't target these types of enterprise technologies.

"Many of our students have a 'great idea' that they want to execute, and realize that the gap between the dream and execution is rather wide," noted Dodds, so technologies that are at home in a startup are what students demand. Your local code school may not be rife with Oracle ERP experts, but it could provide a place to retool staff for these emerging technologies in a rapid manner.

Know thy code school

Dodds assured me that most students of his code schools have realistic expectations of what will be expected of them in an IT job, and what types of positions and salaries they'll be ready for by spelling out potential roles and providing training in soft skills appropriate to potential jobs. However, the tech sector is widely perceived to be on the upswing, and there are code schools that are taking advantage of this fact, pitching an unrealistic vision to students and to employers. In some cases, schools will charge placement fees to employees, potentially pressuring students toward jobs or employers where they're not a good fit, a losing proposition for the graduate and the employer.

Like most areas of technology, there is little oversight and not many accreditation agencies monitoring the curriculum and content of the schools, or ensuring their graduates meet an established standard. Some of the bad press may tempt employers to envision code schools as fly-by-night operations to be avoided, but most of the risks of hiring from code schools are the same as hiring from any institution of higher learning. Similarly, potential students need to carefully vet any school they plan on attending, and temper reality with dreams of landing a six-figure development job with only a few weeks of training.

Before hiring from a particular university, most employers will vet the academic program, speak with school leadership, and still expend the due diligence required to vet each individual employee. Similarly, Dodds suggests looking for schools that have honest conversations about the strengths and weaknesses of each student you're considering employing. By speaking with school leadership and carefully evaluating the skills and curriculum the school provides, you'll quickly be able to determine the quality of the school, and whether it could be an ongoing source of candidates.

Conclusion

Code schools provide a fast gateway to technology jobs, allowing everyone from journalists to stay-at-home parents to gain the skills required for an entry-level career in IT. With the right expectations, time spent vetting your local code schools, and perhaps some mentoring with experienced staff in the first year of employment, code schools could be an important tool in staffing your organization.

Have you hired graduates of coding schools? If so, tell us about the experience. If not, let us know if you might consider doing so in the future.

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About

Patrick Gray works for a global Fortune 500 consulting and IT services company and is the author of Breakthrough IT: Supercharging Organizational Value through Technology as well as the companion e-book The Breakthrough CIO's Companion. He has spent ...

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